Tensions Run High At Central Pine Barrens Commission Meeting

Tensions ran high at the Central Pine Barrens Commission meeting at Brookhaven Town Hall last week during a discussion of whether the board should review a developer’s proposal to build a golf course resort in East Quogue.

Chairwoman Carrie Meek Gallagher, who also serves as regional director of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said at the meeting on Wednesday, April 10, that she had been “promised a response” from the Southampton Town Planning Department to a letter sent last month seeking more information on the project. The town department sent the letter late last week, reiterating their argument that the information requested by the commission is currently under review by the local municipality. 

At last month’s meeting, the commission agreed to re-send a letter, dated March 18, 2018, to the Planning Department, as well as the developers behind the proposal, Arizona-based Discovery Land Company, seeking information on the project’s adherence to clearing and fertilization restrictions set forth in the Pine Barrens Protection Act.

However, regardless of that assurance, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, who sits on the commission, made a motion at last week’s meeting to assert jurisdiction over the project. He cited sections of the Pine Barrens Protection Land Use Plan, which allow a member of the commission to assert jurisdiction if a project poses “a significant adverse impact” on the environment. 

But the supervisor’s motion was not seconded by any board member and did not come to a vote. 

Mr. Romaine said that he would make another motion at the commission’s next board meeting on May 15 at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley. Speaking to his colleagues, he said, “At the next meeting, I will reassert it again, just so everyone’s on notice.”

Following Mr. Romaine’s motion, Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who also serves as a member of the commission, said that she would fully support asserting jurisdiction over the project next month if the Southampton Town Planning Department has not responded to the commission’s request for additional information. 

“I have to say that I don’t disagree that at some point we should assert jurisdiction,” she said. 

It’s unclear whether the Town Planning Department’s letter will satisfy Ms. Jens-Smith’s request for information. 

Since 2013, the commission has sent a total of 10 letters to the Planning Department and Discovery Land, with no response, which has left a sour taste in the mouths of those opposed to the project.

Pointing to that previous lack of response, Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said, “It’s past time for the commission to act.” 

However, Southampton Town Planning and Development Administrator Kyle Collins—who sat in for Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman at Wednesday’s commission meeting—argued that the commission does not have the authority to act without a written petition.

At the meeting, he requested that John Milazzo, who serves as special counsel to the Pine Barrens Commission, read several sections of the law, specifically those detailing the commission’s authority to review projects. However, none specifically requires that a petition be made in writing.

In fact, Mr. Romaine fiercely objected to Mr. Collins’s position on Wednesday. He argued that when the board asserted jurisdiction over a relatively similar version of the project, known as “The Hills at Southampton”—which was denied by the Southampton Town Board in December 2017—former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst did so verbally and without a written petition. 

On Wednesday, Mr. Milazzo took the same stance. “The commission has the authority to assert jurisdiction—that’s his right,” he said, referring to Mr. Romaine’s motion. 

According to the Pine Barrens Protection Act, “The act authorizes the commission, through petition by an individual commissioner and an affirmative vote of the commission, to review any project which has a significant adverse impact on the goals of the plan. Upon a majority vote of the commissioners, the commission may assert jurisdiction over said project.”

The commission automatically asserts jurisdiction over any project proposed to be built in the Pine Barrens “critical resource area,” or has been determined as a “development of regional significance.”

Critical resource areas are defined as any land area having significant environmental features, whereas developments of regional significance, are classified as projects expected to have a significant environmental impact, specifically in terms of traffic.

Building is allowed within the critical resource area of the Pine Barrens, as well as in the compatible growth area—however, there are strict guidelines that must be adhered to. 

A development is defined under the Pine Barrens Act as being of regional significance if the project constitutes “a commercial, industrial or office development exceeding 300,000 square feet; a multifamily residential development project consisting of 300 or more units; a single-family detached residential development project consisting of 200 or more units; or a development project resulting in a traffic impact which would reduce service by two levels below existing conditions or to a level of service of D or below.” 

Echoing a previous interview with Pine Barrens Commission Executive Director John Pavacic, Mr. Romaine said on Wednesday that the commission has yet to determine whether either of those conditions apply: “We don’t have enough information to make that determination.” 

Recently, both Mr. Collins and Mr. Schneiderman argued that in order to make that determination, the Southampton Town Planning Board must deem whether a previous environmental impact study—completed for the previous iteration of the project—is sufficient under the developer’s revised project.

According to the Planning Department’s letter, “After the Planning Board completes its SEQRA review, the application can be deemed complete and a determination can be made as to whether the project complies with the standards pursuant to development within compatible growth area and the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan.”

Mr. Romaine took the exact opposite stance on Wednesday: “I feel, particularly now that SEQRA is underway, that this is the time that we should step up and assert jurisdiction,” he said, referring to the State Environmental Quality Review Act. 

Opponents to the project, Southampton Town Civic Coalition President Andrea Spilka and Brookhaven Town resident Annette Kattau, who spoke after the meeting, fully supported Mr. Romaine’s motion.

“This is about the island—this commission has the right to protect the Pine Barrens,” said Ms. Kattau, who serves as a member of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations. “It is important to preserve our water, and we are at the brink right now.”

“The lengths that the town’s representatives are trying to go to avoid scrutiny and to avoid the oversight that the Pine Barrens Commission should be providing … is a real concern,” Ms. Spilka said. “They are tipping the hand so far in the favor of the developer to presume that everything is fine.”

Pointing to Mr. Collins, Ms. Kattau went as far as to say, “I assume that after this is over, he’s going to be leaving the area. He won’t be here to face the music.”

By Valerie Gordon, Southampton Press 

Check out the original publication of this article here